Debbie Eldridge was lolling about her 40-foot-long Monaco Diplomat luxury motor home with her twin sister, Betty Hayden, cooling off with a Diet Pepsi after a marathon morning at the flea markets.
Eldridge, 58, had reaped a modest haul — a dog toy for her beloved bichon, Boomer, and a decorative sun sculpture that she planned to display in the backyard of her real home in Merced, Calif.
Hayden was sporting her newest acquisition: a pink fringed T-shirt that read, “Quartzsite, Arizona.”
The girls, as their husbands call them, come here every winter for some shopping, some sun and a break from the rhythm of retired life. Begrudgingly, they bring the boys along, too.
The couples moor their RVs side-by-side at the Desert Oasis trailer park off Highway 95, where about $300 a month gets you a parking space, sewer hookups and a front-row seat for one of America’s oddest annual migrations.
During the scorching summer months, Quartzsite is little more than a hiccup on the highway, a truck stop town of 3,600 baking in the Sonoran Desert where road trippers pull off for gas before crossing into or out of California.
Then winter blows in.
From October to April, more than 1 million people pass through, town officials estimate. Some stay only a week or two. Others call it home for the season.
During that time, Quartzsite may be the most eccentric place in the country, a weird Western outpost where “tea party” retirees mingle with cigarette-rolling rock hounds and white-haired hippies — and where no one bats an eye at a bare-bottomed bookseller.
But with that diversity come various views of what the town should be, and sometimes they conflict. After decades of watching its population rise and fall, Quartzsite has hit a midlife crisis, with some wondering if the town needs to rein in its freewheeling ways.
“This was like an Old West town,” said Jake Jakubec, a 66-year-old retired truck driver who has wintered in Quartzsite since the 1990s. “We bought and sold and partied and camped. We had a ball here.”
Jakubec, who lives out of a souped-up Chevrolet van, was sitting on a porch just off Main Street, trading tall tales with his old friend Harold Donaldson, 64. Both men have the archetypal Quartzsite look: sun-freckled skin that bears a resemblance to boot leather, and T-shirts the color of dust.
“Alien intervention is very real,” Donaldson was saying when Jakubec cut him off.
“Harold, am I right or am I wrong?” Jakubec said. “They’re trying to make this place into Palm Springs.”
“Ah, it’s a commercial deal now,” Donaldson said, sighing. “It used to be you could just drive up here, throw your tarp down, pay the property owner $5, and that was all.”
Town Manager Alex Taft would like naysayers like Donaldson and Jakubec to spend a week in her shoes. Then they’d have to reckon with the question she faces: How is a town with no supermarket and only 13 police officers supposed to cope with such a massive swell of people?
“It’s kind of a wall of humanity,” Taft said. Some days, traffic is so thick it’s faster to walk than drive.
The snowbirds putter in from all directions in motor homes and campers, which they hitch up at one of Quartzsite’s 70-plus trailer parks or on the federal land that sprawls in all directions beyond the town limits.
With metal roofs glittering amidst the saltbush and saguaro, the rigs look like covered wagons from a distance. Some part-time residents, like the Eldridges, dress up their lots with plastic flamingoes and fake palm trees.
Many are drawn by the gem and mineral shows that materialize each year in windswept tents along the side of the road.
One of the largest is the Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show, a temporary tent city where bargain hunters pick through cardboard boxes brimming with onyx, rose quartz, meteorite and Brazilian jade. Other essentials for sale include gun holsters, hula hoops and diabetic socks, along with the sorts of deep-fried concoctions typically hawked at state fairs.
At 10 a.m. on a recent day, patrons were already knocking back cold ones at Beer Bellys, a bar set up on a patch of AstroTurf in the middle of it all.
“It’s kind of like a big carnival,” said Charlene Mullens, 58, who was dusting off jewelry at Dave’s Bead Emporium. “People just have a good ol’ time.”
Nobody’s sure exactly how Quartzsite became a haven for the RV set. But many say it may have started in the 1960s when a woman traveling west broke down on Interstate 10.
She had four young girls and no money to fix her station wagon, so she sold the kids’ toys. Soon, others were imitating, exhibiting their wares in the backs of pickup trucks.
A man named Howard Armstrong decided to make it official. He started a winter swap meet called the Main Event, which drew crowds with its bargains and diversions (hot air balloon rides and camel races). Armstrong died in 2004 and the ownership changed. The swap meet still takes place every January, but now “a lot of that festivity is gone because he’s gone,” Taft said.
Taft is from Connecticut, by way of Phoenix. She is slim with chin-length silver hair and wears a silk scarf patterned with cats. She started coming here in the 1990s and stayed because the climate helped her health. She volunteered at the library — which sees 1,000 daily visitors in the winter — and was eventually drafted to help the town deal with its unique budget challenges.
Taft said the town charges vendors only $50 for a six-month license. Quartzsite does not collect property taxes and relies heavily on grants, which help pay for extra workers in winter. What the town needs, Taft says, are year-round attractions, fairgrounds maybe, as well as industry and stores. But she said the seasonal population shifts make it hard to attract investors.
Still, Police Chief Jeff Gilbert said growth is inevitable. “It’s kind of a blank slate,” he said. “It’s a prime opportunity!”
To some folks, that’s the problem. Jade Jones, editor of the Desert Freedom Press, helped organize a campaign this year to recall five of seven town council members.
A few weeks before the March election, Jones, 45, was bent over a laptop in a cramped trailer, strategizing with her closest political allies, Michael Roth, who pens a column in the paper called “The Patriot’s Corner,” and Quartzsite Mayor Ed Foster. A row of caged dogs howled at full volume. (Jones also runs a pet grooming and boarding business.)
“I get about as much respect here as I get on the council,” Foster said.
“You probably get more here,” Jones quipped.
Jones and Roth met a few years ago at a presidential campaign event for Ron Paul. They were upset with town officials, who they felt were too intent on steering Quartzsite away from its free-market swap-meet roots.
So they started attending council meetings with cameras and posting the footage on YouTube. Roth was arrested at one meeting. Not long after, Jones was arrested at her home after an altercation with a building inspector. Her framed mug shot hangs near her collection of dog show trophies.
“We’re taking back America one small town at a time,” Jones said.
When voters went to the polls March 8, they chose not to recall the council members. Taft, the town manager, said the results showed that people want to move Quartzsite into the future.
But for now, eccentric Quartzsite remains. Consider Shanana “Rain” Golden-Bear, editor of the town’s other weekly newspaper, the Desert Messenger, who has thunderclouds tattooed on her cheeks; or Pinky Williams, a mountain man from Texas who journeys to Quartzsite each year to sell knives fashioned out of arrowheads and raccoon jaws. “I was born a hundred years too late,” he says.
And then there’s Paul Winer, who started coming here with his wife, Joanne, 61, in the 1990s to sell used books — three for $1 — out of a tent, but who now owns a bookstore with 180,000 titles.
Winer, 67, saves on taxes because the store, which has plastic tarp walls that unfurl from a frame, is technically an outdoor structure. He’s good at skirting laws. A nudist, he covers up at work with a teeny thong, narrowly fitting the criteria for public decency.
Quartzsite’s famed “naked bookseller” estimates that he poses for photographs 8,000 times a year with a variety of visitors, from Asian tourists to Willie Nelson types. He once performed across North America, family in tow, as an “adult cabaret” artist (stage name “Sweet Pie”).
In 1991, after watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with his daughter while on the road, she asked, “What is a neighborhood?” So they settled in Quartzsite, near Yuma, where Winer’s parents retired.
Several years later, his daughter died at age 8 of a viral heart infection. Winer said he and his wife stayed “because this is the place where people remember her.”
They stayed, too, because Quartzsite is a good fit. As night fell on the desert, Winer sat at a piano in his shop and danced his fingers across the keys, unsettling dust.
“I got a little nothing,” he crooned. “A little nothing nowhere.”